The Delicate Balance: Helping Your Teen Cope With Stress

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The Delicate Balance: Helping Your Teen Cope With Stress

You want your teen to learn self-reliance. To problem-solve. To build resilience. At the same time, your teen still needs your support when the going gets rough. And rougher is the direction it appears to be going for today’s teens.

It’s not their imagination. The pressures are piling on—more and faster than ever. Teens are increasingly stressed about academics, social and romantic relationships, family life, finances and even world events.

Watching your teen wrestle with stress can be unsettling. Solving their problems for them is counterproductive to their growth and development. But ignoring your teen’s stress carries its own risks, as chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression.

[Related: Snowplow Parenting: How Well-Meaning Parents Rob Kids of the Opportunity to Thrive]

Teen Stress vs. Teen Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are related—but different. Stress is the body’s response to an outside pressure. Contrary to its reputation, stress isn’t inherently negative; in fact, in the right doses, stress can be positive. Stress can motivate your teen to study for an exam. To practice before a concert. To prioritize their competing responsibilities.

Most of the time, stress is short-term, and disappears when the trigger is gone. But too much stress—especially over a prolonged period of time—can lead to insomnia, poor concentration and anxiety.

Anxiety is a sustained mental health disorder. While stress can be managed, anxiety needs to be treated, as it can cause significant impairment in functioning in social, academic and work settings.

How can you tell when it’s time to step in and offer your help? These red flags could be signs that your teen’s stress is morphing into anxiety or depression:

  • Shifts in typical patterns (eating, sleeping, socializing)
  • Avoidance of “normal” activities
  • Volatile mood swing, signs of agitation or heightened irritability
  • Physical changes, including headaches, stomach aches, reduced immune system
  • Cognitive changes such as lack of concentration, forgetfulness and/or the appearance of carelessness

5 Ways to Help Your Teen Manage Stress

Teens can be tricky; as much as they still need you, they often don’t want to need you. When your teen is experiencing a particularly stressful period in their life, make more time for them than usual. Even your subtle presence can be a calming force. Here are some other ways to help your teen cope with stress:

1. Keep the lines of communication open.

Open communication means suspending judgment. Being there. Listening. If your teen is comfortable talking with you, they’ll be more apt to share what’s going on in their lives—and how they’re feeling about them. Ask open-ended questions to fuel conversation, but don’t force them to talk about things they’re not ready discuss. (That will backfire quickly!) Let your teen take the lead.


The most authentic conversations tend to happen naturally, while you’re participating in shared activities or, as if often the case, while your teen is a passenger in your car. One of Murphy’s laws of parenting is that teens often want to talk late at night, when you’re exhausted and ready for bed. Chalk it up to adolescence … Power through and have these important conversations.

2. Promote healthy habits.

Sleep — At a time in their life when they need it most, teens tend to skimp on sleep. Inundated with homework, busy with extracurricular activities and engulfed by their social lives (including social media activity), most teens I see typically get five hours of sleep per night. Teens actually need around nine hours of sleep per night for optimal cognitive performance and emotional regulation.

Diet — Emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy diet without making food a power struggle. While you can’t control what your teen chooses to eat, you can encourage healthy eating. Have healthy food choices available. Cook healthy meals. Model healthy eating habits.

Exercise — Physical activity is a great way for teens to discharge stress. There is no “best” type of physical activity for your teen; whichever sport or activity they enjoy—and will stick with—is the right one for them. Encourage your teen to build exercise into their routine, and to prioritize it as self-care.


3. Normalize stress. 

As teens become more self-aware, stress can produce a spiral of worry. In their egocentric teen mind, they might think that their level of stress is higher than others’. The intensity of their stress might terrify them, as they wonder if they’ll be able to keep it under control.

It’s important to validate their feelings, and to remind them that stress subsides once the stressor—the important exam, the big game, the competitive audition, etc.—is over. Reassure your teen that stress is a normal response, and that everyone experiences stress (even if they show it in different ways).

4. Offer stress-management tools and techniques.

If your teen is open to the idea, teach them some sort of meditation. Help your teen discover something that resonates with them, from engaging in deep breathing to using a meditation app on their phone. Meditation can be especially helpful before bedtime, when teens’ brains tend to go into overdrive.

Evidence increasingly points to the many benefits of meditation and mindfulness. One Harvard study proved that engaging in meditation for just eight weeks actually changes the brain’s neuropathways, positively impacting memory, self-esteem, empathy and stress.

5. Seek outside help.

If your teen is showing signs of stress that concern you, reach out for professional help. Teen emotions are volatile, but never ignore red flags. Waiting too long to intervene can have devastating consequences. The earlier your teen learns to manage stress, the better they’ll feel about themselves, and the stronger they’ll show up in the world.

Parenting doesn't come with a handbook.

If you’re interested in learning more about adolescent psychotherapy, family counseling or parenting support, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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